Friends lend a hand at museum

FLUSHING After a broken waterline soaked everything from ceiling tiles to irreplaceable historic records, John Mattox is starting to put the pieces of his Underground Railroad Museum back together with help from dozens of friends.

A pipe in the second-floor men’s room broke on Jan. 30; Mattox discovered the mess two days later on Feb. 1. By then, several rooms on that level had been flooded, and water had poured through the ceiling into the office. The damage extended to the basement, where a slave cabin setting and more were affected.

On Sunday, four students from Olney Friends School in Barnesville opted to give up their free time and spend the afternoon boxing up books and artifacts, moving furniture and cleaning showcases. Joining them were Head of School Charlie Szumilas and his wife, Susan, as well as Communications and Marketing Director Jennifer Compston-Strough and Flushing residents Sandy Kidd and Michael Lindamood.

Claire Bober, an Olney freshman, just wanted to lend a helping hand.

“I did it because I feel good about my community and what I can give back,” Bober said.

For sophomore Seth Solomon, the need to help preserve African-American history hits closer to home. Seth is Caucasian, but he was adopted by African-American parents.

“I feel African-American heritage is a strong part of my family because of my adoption,” he said. “I also wanted to see the museum because I like black history.”

Freshmen Emilio Valverde and Holden Fry had no special reasons for volunteering to help, but they enjoyed the experience.

“It was worth it” Fry said. “I’ve seen some cool things.”

While the boys boxed up books so the shelves that held them could be moved to make way for new carpeting, Bober and Susan Szumilas carefully removed artifacts from showcases and wiped the glass shelves and display windows. Strough and Kidd also worked to clean shelves and display cases that had become soiled due to the water leak.

Charlie Szumilas, Valverde and Solomon pitched in with Lindamood and Mattox to do some heavy lifting. Together they loaded an organ, storage cabinets, chairs and more into a rented truck so they could be removed from the museum while repairs are under way.

“When the staff and students at Olney heard that a waterline had burst and caused damage at the museum, it seemed only natural that we would come to John’s aid,” Strough said. “The school was founded by Quakers who believed there is `that of God’ in everyone including slaves. Olney has long been committed to community, equality and stewardship.”

Olney and Mattox go way back as well. Mattox has presented programs at the school several times, but he was first invited to speak at the school in Barnesville about 10 years ago. Not being familiar with Quaker education, Mattox decided he would attend a Quaker Meeting for Worship.

“I went for Sunday service the week before doing the program,” Mattox recalled.

“I went and I sat, and I sat, and I sat,” he continued with a grin. Mattox had not known that Quakers observe “unprogrammed worship,” which means they gather in silence and wait to experience a holy presence. “I wanted to be a part of it. When you’re in the midst of someone else’s culture, it’s educational.”

Many people have volunteered to help the museum since the damage occurred, perhaps because Mattox is so likeable.

“John’s my friend,” Lindamood noted. “I couldn’t let him down, you know?”

Kidd agreed.

“I like John a lot, and I appreciate this museum,” she said. I try to do as much as I can for my town.”

Mattox said at least 55-60 people have called to volunteer in the wake of the leak. Bethany College, Oakview Juvenile Residential Center and Awakenings Women’s Residential Treatment Center all have offered help and that has Mattox looking on the bright side.

“Things happen for a reason,” he said, noting the crisis has brought him together with many individuals.

He’s also looking forward to getting the museum back in shape and open for visitors.

“The next time you come in here, it won’t look like this,” he promised.

To volunteer or to get more information about the Underground Railroad Museum, located at 121 E. High St., Flushing, call Mattox at 740-968-2080 or 740-968-6113.

To learn more about Olney Friends School, call 740-425-3655 or visit